The Drug War in Colombia 1978-Present

[ 1978 - 2014 ]

The activities of Colombian narcotics traffickers represented a serious internal security problem. During the 1980s, government officials that had been murdered for their efforts to carry out their responsibilities under the country's narcotics laws included a minister of justice, an attorney general, a dozen Supreme Court judges, and a former head of the Antinarcotics Police. In addition, scores of police personnel and lower-court justices had been murdered by the narcotics traffickers' hired assassins (sicarios). By early 1988, the narcotics traffickers had organized their own death squad, The Extraditables. The Extraditables issued threats against or murdered persons seen as abetting the government's attempt to comply with outstanding United States extradition warrants. The corruption spawned as a by-product of the lucrative trafficking operations had threatened, if not irreparably damaged, the integrity of the Colombian judicial system. Major traffickers often could obtain release by making substantial cash payments to the magistrates responsible for their cases.

Although some limited drug interdiction efforts occurred under the Misael Pastrana Borrero (1970-74) and Alfonso López Michelsen (1974-78) administrations, President Turbay implemented the first major campaign against narcotics trafficking. In November 1978, Turbay declared a state of siege and dispatched the military to quell the surge in drug-related activities then taking place in the Guajira Peninsula. Over the next sixteen months, a 12,000-man army brigade destroyed marijuana fields in the countryside and arrested traffickers while the navy blockaded the coastline and confiscated narcotics shipments heading to the United States. The campaign ended in March 1980 because of growing concerns that it was disrupting the region's economy and exposing the armed forces to the corrupting influence of payments from narcotics traffickers. Turbay removed the military from the Guajira Peninsula and replaced them with 6,000 members of the National Police. During the Turbay administration, Colombia also agreed to a treaty authorizing the extradition to the United States of narcotics traffickers accused of crimes in that country. Finally, Turbay established the Judicial Police to assist in the investigation of narcotics-related crimes.

Upon assuming the presidency in 1982, Betancur adopted a somewhat softer drug policy than had his predecessor. Betancur objected to the extradition treaty on nationalist grounds and also refused to allow the aerial spraying of paraquat on marijuana fields. At the same time, however, Betancur's minister of justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, aggressively pursued traffickers and authorized raids on the Medellín Cartel's principal cocaine processing complexes. In April 1984, Lara Bonilla was assassinated, apparently in reprisal for the successful raid the previous month on the massive Tranquilandia complex. The murder of the minister of justice shocked Colombians and galvanized Betancur into action. Declaring a "war without quarter" against traffickers, Betancur invoked his state of siege powers, extradited thirteen drug dealers to the United States, and committed substantial resources to massive anti-narcotics operations by the police.

During its first two years in office, the Barco administration was rocked by a series of narcotics-related incidents. In rulings in December 1986 and June 1987, the Supreme Court essentially gutted the extradition treaty with the United States. Prior to the second ruling, however, the government extradited drug kingpin Carlos Lehder Rivas. In December 1986, a hit squad of the Medellín Cartel traveled to Budapest and seriously wounded Enrique Parejo González, Colombia's ambassador to Hungary and Lara Bonilla's successor as minister of justice during the Betancur administration. The following January, gunmen employed by the cartel assassinated Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos Jiménez and kidnapped Andrés Pastrana, PC candidate for mayor of Bogotá and son of former President Pastrana.

In response, in January 1988 Barco decreed a series of measures collectively known as the Statute for the Defense of Democracy. The statute, which was partly modeled on anti-terrorist measures adopted in West Germany, Italy, and Britain, expanded the security forces' jurisdiction under a state of siege declaration and lengthened prison sentences for those convicted of terrorist acts. Returning to a policy of the Turbay administration, Barco recommitted military forces to the interdiction effort. Despite concerns in the armed forces' hierarchy about the potential corrupting influence of the drug lords, Barco felt compelled to order the military into action because of widespread public concerns over police effectiveness.


An agreement to extradite narcotics suspects tothe US for trial ignited "drug wars" during 1986-90. Extreme drug-related violence caused the deaths of three candidates for president in 1990; Cesar Gaviria Trujillo (1947-) of the Liberal Party won and moved to form a coalition government of Liberals, Conservatives and other groups... 

Federal soldiers ... killed Pablo Escobar (1949-93), leader of the Medellin cocaine cartel. Afterward the Cali cartel gained strength and, by 1995, reportedly controlled up to 70 percent of the world's trade in cocaine... 

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